This past weekend, Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray made his annual pilgrimage to Franklin Street in Worcester, attending a memorial service in his hometown for six city firefighters killed in the infamous 1999 Cold Storage warehouse fire.
This morning, a phone in his house rang as Public Safety Secretary Mary Beth Heffernan relayed word of another serious fire in the city. Moments later, Murray’s wife, Tammy, chimed in from the gym with a text message: There was a “big” fire on Arlington Street.
By the time Murray himself reached the scene, there was grim news to report: One firefighter, Jon Davies, had been killed as a triple-decker collapsed amid a three-alarm fire. Another firefighter, Brian Carroll, was injured. City firefighters were also searching the rubble for a missing civilian.
“Just to have something like this happen so soon after, December has been a cruel month for the Worcester Fire Department,” Murray, a former Worcester mayor, told the Globe during an interview shortly after he returned home.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack numbed the nation’s sensibilities to a large-scale public safety loss. The back-to-back collapse of the World Trade Center towers in New York killed 343 city firefighters and 23 police officers in less than a half-hour.
But it’s hard to overstate the local, state, and national outpouring of sympathy for a relatively small city like Worcester after the Cold Storage tragedy less than two years earlier.
Then-President Clinton came to town to pay homage to the dead firefighters, who perished when they became disoriented and ran out of air while looking for two homeless people - who, unbeknownst to fire officials - had already left the building.
“I hope you can all sense that words have a poor power to alleviate the pain we feel now,” Clinton told the audience at a memorial service in the Worcester Centrum. “We hope that by our collective presence we will speak louder than words.
“Your tragedy is ours,” the president said.
Among those in the audience then was Murray, then 31 and newly elected to his second term on the Worcester City Council. Over time, he would rise to city mayor and, in 2006, win election as the state’s lieutenant governor on a ticket with gubernatorial candidate and fellow Democrat Deval Patrick.
Murray has been especially mindful of his Worcester roots, sending money back to the state’s second-largest city, increasing the frequency of commuter rail service, and serving as Patrick’s liaison to all 351 Massachusetts cities and towns.
In that role, Murray ran into trouble this fall, when he got embroiled in a Dracut Housing Authority leadership dispute that ended up exposing the sky-high salary of his friend, political ally, and former Chelsea Housing Authority director Michael E. McLaughlin.
The controversy has raised doubts about Murray’s political future, but, today, with Patrick in Brazil on a trade mission, the lieutenant governor was actually serving as the state’s acting governor when Hefferan’s call and his wife’s text reached his house.
Visiting the scene was a sad reflex.
“They initially cleared the building, and after they cleared the building, there was still, apparently, a civilian unaccounted for and they went back in and did a secondary search, from what I understand,” Murray said. “The injured firefighter and the firefighter who was killed when the building collapsed ended up in the basement.”
Asked if he knew Davies and Carroll, Murray replied: “I’ve heard the names of both, but until I see the pictures, I can’t say, but this is just a tragedy.”
The memories are so fresh, and the pain in the city so raw today, because Worcester gathered only Saturday for its annual commemoration of the Dec. 3, 1999, Cold Storage fire.
Murray was there, along with his two daughters and his sister-in-law, whose uncle - Joseph T. McGuirk - was among the six firefighters who died that day.
Also in the crowd of 300 to 400 were city firefighters and everyday residents.
A new city fire station has been built on the site, and Worcester has taken the lead on new firefighter training and safety practices.
Nonetheless, the similarities between the events of 12 years ago and today are both haunting and inspiring.
“Most importantly, and it’s already happening now, the community rallied to support the Worcester Fire Department, the men and women of the fire department and their families, and that’s obviously important in the immediate aftermath of something like this,” said Murray. “But what I think is as important is that over time that that support continues. And you see that in turnout that’s taken place every year on Dec. 3 at the place of where the fire happened.”
Asked if the Cold Storage fire was a seminal event for his hometown, Murray paused before answering.
“There have been firefighters lost in the line of duty, but there had never been multiple firefighters lost. And searching for a homeless couple, I think it just underscored what sometimes we take for granted: that these men or women at a moment’s notice - regardless of someone’s background or whatever else – go in to save lives, at risk and peril to their own. And they don’t rest until everybody’s recovered, and that’s happening, as we speak, in terms of trying to find this unaccounted civilian, and we saw in the days after the Dec. 3 fire.”Glen Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.